How did Mount Rushmore come to be?

Composite image of Mount Rushmore and blue sky with white clouds

AMP4XR Composite image of Mount Rushmore and blue sky with white clouds

Source: BBC

By Jonathan Glancey

Teased, parodied, used and satirised over and again in books, comic strips, theme parks and films, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial is also one of the best loved visitor attractions in the United States and a fondly held image in the minds of people worldwide.

The stern faces, each 60ft high, were carved between 1927 and 1941

It depicts, of course, the faces of four great US presidents – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln – looming from a granite rock face, set 5,725ft (1745m) above sea level, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The stern faces, each 60ft (18.2m) high, were carved between 1927 and 1941. Their composition has never been anything less than dramatic.

Alfred Hitchcock certainly thought so, spreading the monument’s fame through the final scene of North by Northwest (1959) in which murderous spies pursue impeccably dressed Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint across the silent, stony faces of Washington and company.

(Credit: Alamy)

Alfred Hitchcock set the climax of North by Northwest on the faces of Mount Rushmore, although he shot the scene in a studio (Credit: Alamy)

In reality, this scene was filmed in a studio, but if it helped boost tourism in South Dakota, this was wholly in the spirit of the giant sculpture. Why? Because, the original idea, proposed in 1923 by South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson, was for a giant artwork that would bring visitors to this remote area appropriated by the US government from Lakota (or Sioux) Indians after Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse’s defeat of Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Robinson’s preference was for giant figures of Wild West heroes – like Buffalo Bill Cody – carved into granite pillars elsewhere in the Black Hills. He approached the monumental sculptor, Lorado Taft, who, ill at the time, failed to respond. Robinson turned to Gutzon Borglum, the son of polygamous Mormon parents from Idaho territory, who had trained at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian in Paris. A freemason and Ku Klux Klan member, Borglum thought Robinson’s pillars too thin for the demands of monumental sculpture and that, in any case, images of US presidents would be preferable to those of cowboys, showmen and soldiers.

Carving history

Congressional and presidential approval for the project were granted well before the 60-year old Borglum and 400 assistants – miners, rock climbers, sculptors – set to work with jackhammers, chisels and dynamite, blasting 410,000 tons of rock from the mountainside. George Washington’s face was completed in 1934 with Jefferson’s – a second attempt after cutting into rock that proved too unstable – following two years later. Abraham Lincoln, whose beard was a challenge, was next in 1937, with Teddy Roosevelt staring through granite glasses in 1939.

(Credit: USL)

Some wanted the monument to feature Western heroes like Red Cloud and Buffalo Bill Cody, but the US presidents, initially to have been carved to mid-torso, won out (Credit: USL)

While Borglum was busy at work, Congress rejected a bill that would have added Susan B Anthony, the social reformer and votes for women campaigner, to the presidential quartet. Although Anthony’s profile was perfectly statuesque, Borglum was not keen on the idea.

The larger Crazy Horse memorial was designed to “show the white man that the red man has heroes too”

Meanwhile, Luther Standing Bear, an Oglala Lakota chief who had appeared on the big screen in numerous westerns and whose books helped nurture the idea that Native American culture was holistic and in tune with nature, wrote to Borglum in the hope of adding Crazy Horse to the memorial. Receiving no answer, the chief’s son Henry Standing Bear, approached Korczak Ziolkowski, one of Borglum’s assistants.

The upshot was the Crazy Horse Memorial, a much larger sculpture than Borglum’s, hewn from Thunderhead Mountain in the Black Hills 17 miles (27.3km) from Mount Rushmore. It was intended, according to Henry Standing Bear, to “show the white man that the red man has heroes too.”

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